By Douglas LeBlanc
Bob Dylan has performed six times in Richmond, Virginia, during his 50-year career. This year, a month before Dylan and his five band members took the stage again at Richmond’s Landmark Theater, the members of St. James’s Church gathered for their first Dylan Mass. Mark and Virginia Whitmire, who oversee the music and choirs at St. James’s, do not pretend that Dylan would have added bluesy riffs on his Hohner mouth harp had he been in town a month earlier. They mention honest doubts about whether Dylan would be pleased at their liturgical use of his songs. But they stress that the Dylan Mass rises from their adult conversion to the Dylan fan base, an eventual discovery of what Mark Whitmire calls Dylan’s “authentic prophetic voice.”
The Dylan service was part of a rotation of contemporary music sung by the parish’s West Gallery Choir, which already has adapted bluegrass and jazz to blend into contemporary settings of the Holy Eucharist.
The Whitmires and the Rev. Carmen Germino, assistant rector, spent hours finding common themes between the readings for March 3 and Dylan’s lyrics. “We started with the lectionary and it was providential that the service was in Lent,” Virgnia said. “It was Burning Bush Sunday.”
The choir sang “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” as a prelude, followed by the apocalyptic “Ring Them Bells.” The processional litany used a Dylan album title (Oh Mercy) and a song title “Strengthen the Things That Remain” (cf. Rev. 3:2) as prayer responses. The choir and congregation sang “The Times They Are A-Changin’” before sitting for the lessons. “When the Ship Comes In” served as the Gospel hymn.
“Saving Grace,” one of Dylan’s rare and startling expressions of humility (“If you find it in Your heart, can I be forgiven?”) was the offertory hymn. Communion songs included “Every Grain of Sand,” Dylan’s haunting anthem that draws from the work of William Blake, and “I Shall Be Released.” “Blowing in the Wind” served as the recessional hymn.
In a booklet prepared for the service, one credit said: “The text of the Doxology is drawn from John’s vision described in Revelation 4 and set to the tune of The Times They Are A-Changin’ by Virginia Whitmire (with apologies to Bob Dylan).”
Apologies notwithstanding, the Whitmires treat Dylan’s music with care and respect. “We have people here that you would expect to love only Bach and Palestrina, but they love the Dylan Mass,” Mark said. “What we don’t do is pander. I’m not going to feed you a spoonful of sugar and say, ‘Isn’t that sweet?’”
For most of his life, Whitmire said, he “was not a Dylan guy,” but he was persuaded. “It’s not widely acknowledged among conservatory-trained church musicians, but it’s clear to me how well he fits into the culture” of worship.
As the Whitmires studied Dylan’s lyrics and music they discovered work that was shot through with biblical allusions and a concern for justice similar to themes running through the prophets of the Old Testament.
“The more I researched him and watched No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s documentary about him, the more I’ve come to love him,” Virginia said. She read aloud from remarks Dylan made at the outset of his career: “There’s mystery and magic in great folk music. I can’t touch that, but I hope to try.”
“There are two kinds of worship music: those that take worshipers to a spiritual plane and keep them there and those that don’t,” Mark said. “My job is not to meet my own needs.”
“You want to kind of jar them,” Virginia said of congregations that are lulled into complacency by the familiar. “You can bring in something that will wake them up.”
“There’s got to be some kind of balance between being a calm and salve and being a call to engagement,” Mark said. “Our job is not to be New Agey and to anesthetize everyone’s conscience.”
Image: Bob Dylan sings at The White House in February 2010. Pete Souza/The White House, via Flickr